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Williams Saga Ends: Supreme Court Dismisses Philip Morris's Appeal as Improvidently Granted

The Supreme Court has blinked in its epic poker game with the Oregon Supreme Court over the latter's punitive damages award against Philip Morris. The Supremes on Tuesday, four months after oral argument, dismissed the tobacco giant's appeal in Philip Morris v. Williams as having been "improvidently granted" in a one-sentence opinion. Mayola Williams now stands to receive up to $150 million (the judgment amount plus interest) for the wrongful death of her husband Jesse. Here's the Wall Street Journal's legal blog report of the case.

This case came before the Supreme Court three times, and has been discussed copiously by yours truly, Ted Frank, Carter Wood and others on this site (use "site search" above to find the various postings). Each time the Supremes invited Oregon courts to revise the huge punitives award -- and each time Oregon judges reaffirmed it, while varying their reasons for doing so.

The last remand was in 2007, with instructions to be sure the verdict did not punish Philip Morris for injuries to anyone other than Jesse Williams. The Oregon Supreme Court responded by reaffirming the verdict again, this time based on an independent state procedural ruling that Philip Morris had not preserved the right to appeal this question. [Since the court was interpreting its own procedural requirements, the U.S. Supreme Court cannot intervene unless that rule produces an unconstitutional result.] PM, for its part, asked the court to finally declare, once and for all, that double-digit multiplier punitives are a per se due process violation. Clearly, the justices could not form a stable majority on these two questions, and decided that no ruling at all was better than incoherence. The Oregon justices have triumphed, though of course the precedential value of the case is limited. Expect other state supreme courts to invoke procedural limitations to sidestep constitutional rulings of which they disapprove, however.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.